The biggest question among Rangers fans in the last four weeks has been a question we're not used to asking.
If you've followed this team, even for a couple of years, the seemingly eternal question has always been "When are we gonna get some pitching in here?" Last year was no exception, being among baseball's leaders in ERA, HR allowed, runs allowed, etc. etc. etc. Why? We play in a 'hitter friendly' park; the Texas heat wears out pitchers; and no free agent in their right mind wants to come here are the typical reasons on why we can seem to pitch our way out of a paper bag.
And Ranger fans have also been wondering what's happened to the defense over the past few years. Until recently, we've had trouble identifying a long term solution at CF and SS. We haven't seen a catcher like Pudge in awhile and we've had a rotation of guys playing 1B since Texieria thankfully left town.
Nope, the questions are no longer about the pitching and defense. Our current pitching staff is pretty darned good and we're getting great performances out of old friends and new discoveries. The bullpen has shaped up and we have an above average closer, when healthy. On the defensive side, we have Young's move to 3B, the discovery of Elvis at SS, the ungodly stretches of Davis at 1B, an improved defensive Kinsler and solid outfield.
Nope, it's not the pitching and defense. Those elements have been keeping us in games this year. The question is this: What's going on with this offense? When's the last time you've asked that question about the Rangers. When was the last time you cringed not at the pitching, but at the hitting?
Looking at the last two months, one could find at least one explanation for the alleged swoon this offense: We’ve been playing good teams with good pitchers (it should be noted that we've avoided some good pitchers as well). And while the pundits have been going on and on about how Kinsler, Young, Andruw and others have been swooning as of late (and how Salty and Davis are rally killers) I believe there is an obvious reason why this offense is off track. And there are good reasons to believe that they’ll get back on track in late June and July. That reason? Hambone.
When Josh Hamilton went on the DL with an abdominal issue, one might surmise that the offense wasn’t going to get too derailed losing a .250BA cleanup hitter. The outfield law office of Andruw, Murphy, and Byrd seemed primed to take over in Hammy's absence.
However, since Hambone went on the DL, the offense has sunk to .218. .218?!?! A Rangers offense?
The way I see it is this: Even with Hamilton hitting below what would be hoped, its obvious that he’s still a dominate force in the lineup. When the top four hitters on the lineup card read KINSLER-YOUNG-HAMILTON-CRUZ, the manager and starting pitcher of the other team have to change their approach. When Ron Washington bumps Young to 3rd in the lineup (a place he admits that he's uncomfortable) and puts any other hitter (Elvis, Murphy, Andruw, Omar) in the 2 spot, the whole demographic changes. As a result, Young doesn’t get as many good pitches to hit (although his BA is still pretty stout). Cruz isn’t as effective as Hamilton in protecting the spot above him on the lineup card. Additionally, Kinsler hasn’t been getting on base as much (his walks are way down) and he can’t be as disruptive on the basepath.
Perhaps the most insane observation is that the Rangers have become a bit quieter on the basepath. Obviously, if you aren’t on base, you can’t steal (or double steal, a category the Rangers have all to themselves), apply the sac bunt or engage any other disruptive play. In the months of April and May, this team was dizzying on the path.
Yes, we have two below average lefties playing 1B. Yes, Davis and Salty are squashing more rallies than Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Yes, we have put everyone but Millwood in the number 2 spot in the batting lineup (although he's pitched so well this year, I think he'd probably hit pretty good too). And yes, we're probably leading the league in RISP.
But I think the rest of the lineup will hit much better with Josh Hamilton creating fear and doubt in the minds of opposing managers and pitchers. When Hambone's in the lineup, the other hitters will get better pitches, there'll be more baserunners on base to disrupt the flow of the opposing defense and the dominate offense that is the Rangers will no longer be a question.